- Illustration by Vince Dorse
Paul O'Hanlon calls it his "A-ha!" moment.
It came around 2002, just as he was starting work as a voting-rights lawyer and learning about the National Voter Registration Act, a law designed to expand access to the ballot box by requiring places like DMVs, welfare offices and disability agencies to double as voter-registration centers. The question the law requires these agencies to ask is simple: "If you are not registered to vote where you live now, would you like to register to vote here today?"
"As a person with a disability ... I wasn't seeing anybody asking the mandatory question," recalls O'Hanlon, who works for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. "I sort of realized that's never happened to me."
At first, he thought, maybe it was just an anomaly — that these were isolated incidents, or he just didn't remember being asked the voter-registration question.
But he started sifting through state data and found a pattern he describes today as "alarming": Thousands of people who receive disability services may never be asked if they want to register to vote. And even among those the state can prove have been asked, only a small proportion appear to ever actually be registered by those agencies.
O'Hanlon isn't the first to accuse the state of failing to ask people receiving public assistance if they want to register to vote — and the problem doesn't just affect people with disabilities. The state appears to be unable to completely account for why people receiving different forms of public assistance — and who do not "decline" to be registered — never actually make it onto the rolls.
The state, meanwhile, largely maintains that any appearance that people aren't being asked whether they want to register can be chalked up to a data-collection system that is still in the process of modernizing. The state also points to recent signs of progress: Voter registrations generated by state-run welfare offices (known interchangeably as county assistance offices) have increased more than four-fold in the past year alone.
Soon after Congress enacted the NVRA, in 1993, Pennsylvania resisted, securing a spot in the group of states initially targeted by the U.S. Department of Justice for refusing to adhere to the law.
And two years ago, the state found itself challenged again, this time by the Pittsburgh-based Black Political Empowerment Project, which was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that contended the state "failed to ensure that all clients [...] are provided with a voter-preference form, a voter-registration application form, and assistance in completing a voter-registration application form."
"Before we filed the lawsuit, for all intents and purposes, there was almost no voter registration going on at the county assistance offices" in Pennsylvania, explains Sarah Brannon, who oversees Washington, D.C.-based Project Vote's efforts at getting states to comply with the NVRA.
That posed a particularly troubling civil-rights problem, since the people relying on public-assistance agencies to help them register to vote are more likely to be more transient and cut off from levers of power in the first place, says Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a local nonprofit that gets some state funding to help connect people to food assistance.
"The principle of the NVRA is that when people are interacting with the government, that's the time to connect them to the relevance of voting," Regal says.
The state appeared eager to settle the BPEP lawsuit: A month after it was filed, the state entered into a settlement agreement promising better compliance with the law.
The effects of that agreement were felt almost immediately.
In 2011, the year before the lawsuit was filed, 5,498 people were registered to vote through county assistance offices, where millions of people each year receive services ranging from supplemental nutrition aid to medical assistance. By 2013, the most recent year for which data was available, 47,028 people were registered to vote by those same county assistance offices, out of roughly 3.9 million registration offers made there.
"We have definitely seen a significant uptick," Brannon says, noting that while disability-service agencies were not included in the settlement agreement, "we've seen that when one agency improves compliance, it can trickle down to others."
So far, though, that doesn't appear to be happening, at least for disability agencies. In fact, with 514 total registrations, 2013 represented the lowest rate of registrations by disability agencies since 2009.
And it's not just that so few people seem to be getting registered. By O'Hanlon's count, hundreds of thousands of people aren't even being asked by disability agencies whether they want to register in the first place. While he estimates that roughly a million people benefited from state-funded disability services, state data show that in 2013, just 77,438 people were asked whether they wanted to be registered to vote.
That, O'Hanlon surmises, means "a person with a disability could wait 12 years to receive a single offer to register to vote."